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Toolshed: Edwards moves to bullpen

Cubs top pitching prospect hoping road to Wrigley paved in relief
May 1, 2015

This is the first in a series of Friday columns we're calling the Toolshed, focusing on some of the more interesting prospect-centered storylines as the 2015 season develops. Have ideas, feedback questions for Sam, email him or tweet him @SamDykstraMiLB.

If there's one thing the Cubs have shown that they want from their young prospects as they build a championship core, it's versatility.

Javier Baez and Addison Russell -- both top-10 prospects at the time of their Major League promotions -- moved from shortstop to second base in order to work their way into the Chicago lineup. Kyle Schwarber, the fourth overall pick last June, is a catcher by trade but played 36 games in the outfield last season. Kris Bryant, MLB.com's No. 2 overall prospect and third baseman in each of 181 Minor League games, has made two appearances in center field and another in left during his first dozen contests in the Majors. 

Then, there's Carl Edwards Jr. (or C.J. Edwards, as he had been called until earlier this week).

There's only one real way to be versatile as a pitcher, and it's to be a guy who can succeed in both a starting and relief role. The Cubs, who added the 23-year-old right-hander to their 40-man roster last offseason, have decided to give Edwards a shot at the latter this spring back at Double-A Tennessee. 

Of course, there are multiple reasons for the move beyond just versatility. Edwards is coming off a 2014 campaign in which he threw only 68 2/3 innings between the Minors and the Arizona Fall League due to a strained right shoulder, and the Cubs want to limit his innings. Pitching between one and three innings at a time helps that. There are also long-term durability concerns with the lanky, 6-foot-3, 170-pound hurler, nicknamed The String Bean Slinger.

Finally, there's the belief that Edwards' stuff might just play better as a reliever and that his Major League future therefore lies in the bullpen. MLB.com's No. 46 overall prospect has a plus fastball, which can reach the high-90s on occasion, and curveball with just an average changeup.

Though that three-pitch mix has worked wonders as a starter in the lower levels of the Minors -- Edwards owns a career 1.97 ERA, 1.01 WHIP and 11.1 K/9 with only two home runs allowed in three seasons -- a relief role would allow Edwards to play up his impressive fastball-curveball combo in shorter stints. The Cubs certainly thought that earlier this year with general manager Jed Hoyer telling The Chicago Tribune, "He looked outstanding this spring. We used him in a bunch of relief outings, and his stuff was electric. Certainly maybe it's a quicker path into the big leagues as a reliever."

Edwards is hoping the change is for that last reason.

"It wasn't my decision, but that's just because I don't have the say in stuff like that," he said. "I'm just going along with what they tell me. If they feel comfortable with what they see from me as a reliever, then I feel comfortable. I can do that because they believe in me, and that's all I want. If I can help the big league team this way, that's what I want."

The results, thus far, have been mixed, at best. 

Edwards, who admits he adds about 2 to 3 mph to his fastball in bullpen stints, has allowed earned runs in three of his five outings -- each lasting between 1 2/3 and 2 1/3 innings -- and has issued 10 walks in 9 2/3 frames. He says the problems thus far were between the ears and not with his arm. 

"I started off just not having confidence in my stuff," he said. "Because this was new, I was overthinking everything coming out of the bullpen. Last two outings have been pretty good though. I always knew I'd make the transition. It was just a matter of time."

Edwards' first quality outing of the season came last Saturday when he didn't allow a hit and struck out three over two innings in a 16-10 win over Chattanooga, where good pitching was at a premium. He couldn't quite carry that momentum into Wednesday's outing (2 IP, 3 H, 2 R, 2 ER, 2 BB, 1 K) against Chattanooga, but for what it's worth, the right-hander felt more settled in that appearance than previous ones. Also despite the control issues, he's still been as unhittable as ever, allowing only eight hits while fanning 11 in 9 2/3 frames and holding opponents to a .222 average, despite a .308 BABIP that's a few ticks higher than his .274 career figure in the Minors.

Edwards' peripherals by year clearly show the big spike in walks per nine this season but also point to an uptick in free passes last season:

Edwards Peripherals

The confidence that has helped Edwards -- the man from Prosperity, South Carolina -- climb from his place as a 48th-round pick in 2011 to a MiLBY award winner in 2013, when he posted a 1.86 ERA with 155 strikeouts in 116 1/3 innings in the Rangers and Cubs systems.

"I'm very confident [I can get back to 2013 numbers]," Edwards said. "I always feel like I start slow and get better as I get more and more comfortable. The more innings I get, the more innings I face, you'll see it's going to come back. I'm not even frustrated yet because I know what's coming."

If that's not enough of a warning that the right-hander's shaky returns are a small sample, consider this another. Also, consider that they might not be indicative of where his future lies.

As Hoyer indicated in the spring, the Cubs could still choose to lengthen out their top pitching prospect as the season progresses. Or if Edwards' confidence is rewarded with improved results, they might keep him in the bullpen, where he could help a potentially contending Major League squad down the stretch this fall as Carlos Martinez did for the Cardinals back in 2013. (Martinez, who also had durability concerns, has only this year nailed down a spot in the St. Louis rotation two years after his Major League debut.)

Whatever the Cubs' ultimate plans for the right-hander, they've kept him out of the loop.

"No, they haven't talked about that," he said. "I'm a reliever for this year, and that's how I want to keep it right now. If they want to change that to be a starter again next year, maybe that's what could happen. It could be part of this season, too. But as of now and this present time, it's more of a reliever mindset, and that's what I'm focused on."

For now, that might be his best road to joining Bryant and Russell, his 2014 teammates in Tennessee, at Wrigley Field before season's end. 

"Of course, those are all great guys, and it would be great to be up there with those guys as soon as I can be," he said. "It'd be great if I could do that this year, and if this is what it takes, I'm going to do it."

Sam Dykstra is a contributor to MiLB.com. Follow and interact with him on Twitter, @SamDykstraMiLB.